Project Director, Kanako Lathrop on Retail and Hospitality in Hawaii

Project Director, Kanako Lathrop on Retail and Hospitality in Hawaii

Kanako “Kana” Lathrop joined WRNS Studio’s Hawaii office in November of last year, bringing with her a doctorate in architecture and an extensive, international portfolio of retail and hospitality projects. We spoke with Kana at her one year anniversary with WRNS to get her take on retail and hospitality in Hawaii.

First, why did you become an architect?

My father was a business owner in the hospitality industry and frequently worked with a Japanese architect who would make beautiful models and hand-sketched renderings. I had always loved art, so the profession intrigued me, but seeing the model of a double-height atrium of a restaurant was really the seed that implanted this career path into my head as a child. By the time I got to high school, I was already looking into the Doctorate program at University of Hawaii.

Your doctorate in architecture is still fairly new and rare in the industry—what made you want to further your studies?

I was one of the first classes to graduate with a Doctor of Architecture from the University of Hawaii at Manoa (UH). The 7-year program offered practicum with local and international firms, which I completed in Tokyo and London while working on my thesis. As a local girl who wanted to work in Hawaii, it was the ideal opportunity to attend the local university and build my foundation at home while still getting overseas exposure. Between practicum, I started working part time at a local firm, and after graduating I ended up working there for the next eight years, focusing on retail and restaurant designs with Japanese clientele.

The architecture industry here is quite small and interconnected as you can imagine, but Hawaii is also a global business hub in the Asian Pacific. The UH School of Architecture Doctorate program gave me both a door to the community and the opportunity for me to form strong international relationships and connections.

What are you excited about in the Hawaiian retail/hospitality world right now?

Hawaii’s architecture/interior design scene has changed drastically over the past several decades with a focus on design that transcends vernacular or Hawaii-themed architecture. While cultural sensibility will always be a key tenet of design, we’re looking for different ways to evoke our culture and history through the fundamentals of functionality, proportion, quality of light and space, and raw, honest materials. The Hawaii Regionalism and Tropical Modernism aesthetic that has consistently been at the forefront of our residential and commercial designs is now shifting to make more room for designer originality.

On the other hand, with a wide range of design ideas becoming much more accessible due to globalization and social media, clients often have more of a set vision in mind. The challenge in this comes from creating a cohesive design language from the collage of images they hand us—one that is authentic to both our practice and the mission of our client. All said, I’m excited for WRNS Hawaii to help usher in this new era of Hawaiian design!

What does a “successful” project mean to you?

Hawaii commercial projects are typically fast-tracked (with project duration of less than a year) due to exorbitant building costs and rents. Many projects end up sacrificing something—whether it’s budget, sustainability, time, or design. A successful project means figuring out the right equation to balance all these factors; we can’t always spend $500+/sf, but we also don’t want budget constraints to limit our design opportunities. I spend a lot of time with each client to make sure our visions are aligned so I can design to their best interests. For example, commercial clients usually want the most “bang for your buck” so it’s important to prioritize areas and create spatial features that draw customers. Building that trust is extremely rewarding, especially when the project initiates a long-term client relationship and we become their go-to designers.

What made you want to join WRNS?

A mutual friend introduced me to Adam Woltag, one of the partners leading the Hawaii office, who then introduced me to Jeff Warner, one of the founding partners. Their passion and vision towards the future of Hawaii’s architecture was refreshing, and their energy was contagious. The firm had great work nationally and was starting to make its mark in Hawaii, with WRNS Hawaii already engaged in prominent projects in the public sector. I thought I could help grow the private sector work with my experience and established clientele. Expanding the project types with something tangible to the general public and essential to the local economy seemed like a practical next step to further strengthen the firm’s Hawaii presence.

Other than my experience in Tokyo and London, I’ve always worked at small firms. The thought of joining a larger firm was a bit overwhelming at first, but I soon realized the magnitude of the benefits to Hawaii having access to the great leadership and resources on the mainland. The strong collaborative teamwork and supportive energy was also something I hadn’t seen in other offices, and I was excited to become a part of it.

How do you incorporate WRNS Studio’s core tenets of beauty, sustainability, and the public realm into your projects?

It’s much more difficult to convince clients to spend the extra dollar to be sustainable, especially in retail and hospitality projects. Thankfully, things are changing—people are taking the concept of Mālama ʻĀina more seriously, which roughly translates “to take care of the land so it can take care of you.”  Local architectural products and materials are sparse, but people in Hawaii are becoming more conscious with salvaging/recycling materials, upgrading building efficiency, and implementing renewable energy. Although there is still a lot of new development, the majority of the commercial projects in Hawaii are tenant improvement/renovation projects, with adaptive reuse becoming more popular in historical sites such as Chinatown. I think there is a great opportunity for WRNS Hawaii to showcase our skills and talent to create something beautiful and significant while maintaining our historical assets.

What are your inspirations outside of architecture?

I don’t think I have a definitive answer because it’s always different! It can be a form and scale from nature to something as trendy as digital art or fashion to pick up a color palette. In terms of materiality, I get a lot of inspiration from simply researching both new and traditional finishes in the market and envisioning every possible use for them. Most importantly, I think moments of silence are good for me (as I work best after hours alone in the office) so I can connect all the little inspirations that come and go daily.